I am writing to the partners of the emotionally unavailable partner. Men have been found more in the insecure-avoidant attachment category and women in the insecure-anxious attachment category. For this reason, I'll be using gendered language in this post.

Adult attachment styles in romantic relationships

There is great interest in learning about attachment styles today and for good reason. Attachment theory has been found to be a reliable indicator of patterns of behavior. Children with an avoidant attachment style grow up to be adults with avoidant attachment. And most people with an avoidant attachment style who are in relationships tend to have issues with romantic partners.

This generally holds true for all three of the four attachment styles.

In a simplified way, types of attachments can be plotted on a graph. One line represents attitudes about ourselves, and the other line represents attitudes about other people. Those of us who feel more positively about ourselves and about others is "securely" attached. Those who feel poorly about themselves but positively toward others are "anxiously" attached.

Individuals who trust themselves but not others are "avoidantly" attached. Finally, those who don't feel positively about either themselves or others are "chaotically" attached or "disengaged."

Attachment develops and is shaped by our primary caregivers. While we often have one primary attachment figure, it is not the only one. We have may have many people in our lives as children (the other parent, siblings, and extended family) who impact us.

For this reason, few of us are "pure" attachment styles but instead are a mixture of several. We can also score 100% in secure attachment, 35% on avoidant, and 15% anxious or a mixture of any other style.

In this post, we will talk about avoidant attachments. These styles often create problems for their spouses, who may feel lonely and disconnected from their mates. Regardless of their efforts to be pleasing or appealing, they get the message that their avoidant spouse would rather be alone.

Insecure Attachment Styles

All attachment styles that are not "secure" are "insecure." An avoidant attachment style goes by many names: "avoidant dismissive attachment style" or simply "fearful-avoidant." Like all attachment styles, the child develops avoidant attachment within the first 18-24 months of life. An avoidant person was once an avoidant child, shaped by the way they were raised.

Intimacy avoidance is a common condition that affects people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. It is a way of protecting oneself from emotional closeness or intimacy with others. It is a problem that can be both debilitating and isolating.

Origins of Avoidant Attachment

Mary Ainsworth discovered that children who demonstrate an avoidant attachment style tend to be less exploratory. They were also more emotionally reserved when their mothers departed during the research project dubbed the "strange situation."

Most children appear distressed by being left in the care of strangers, but these children do not. They also do not appear impacted upon the mother's return; they may ignore her or refuse to make eye contact. Intimacy avoidance can be caused by a variety of things, including fear of:

  • commitment,
  • being hurt, or
  • being vulnerable.

A traumatic event, developmental trauma, or a lack of trust in a relationship can also cause intimacy avoidance. A lack of self-confidence or self-esteem can also cause intimacy avoidance. The symptoms of intimacy avoidance can include:

  • an unwillingness to share feelings or thoughts,
  • an inability to commit to relationships,
  • fear of being rejected, or
  • a desire to stay away from close relationships.

Other symptoms may include a need to control relationships, problems handling criticism, or feelings of detachment and emptiness.

Theodore Millon discusses how parental behavior shaped the child. Rejection took the form primarily of belittlement, teasing, and humiliation.

Although these children might not have been physically abused, the parental message was that the child was:

"weak, worthless, and beneath contempt. As a result of this demeaning and deprecating attitude, the child learned to devalue him- or herself. He or she develops little or no sense of self-esteem. Being worthless, derided, and forlorn, the child felt powerless to counterattack, to overcome the humiliation and ridicule to which he or she was exposed."

Being so rejected and demeaned, the child becomes mistrustful of people and learns to keep their distance from close relationships.

Adult Relationships and Romantic Relationships

The avoidant personality is consistently fretful, anxious, and remote. Despite wanting acceptance and intimacy, their behavior shows the opposite. They cope with life by giving up on the emotional connection. Their primary goal is avoidance of others, being afraid of having feelings and wants, that will leave them conflicted and frustrated.

They become detached onlookers who find peace by detaching from or minimizing needs and wishes. When they are very neurotic, they are extremely alienated. They prefer to stay at the periphery of a social world and find safety in drifting into their fantasy world.

In the beginning, these marriages may appear to be going smoothly due to an intensely emotional or sexual connection. However, the Intimacy Avoidant may become trapped, smothered, or confused and start looking for their partner's flaws.

They might even want intimacy but not know how to respond to their partner's expectations. It is important for the couples therapist to understand the complaining spouse's story.

Treatment Approaches

Individual Treatment

The most common way to treat intimacy avoidance is through individual therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is often used to help people identify and understand the triggers and patterns of their avoidance. This can be done through the exploration of past experiences, feelings, and beliefs.

It can also help individuals to recognize and challenge the negative thought patterns that contribute to avoidance. In addition, men can learn to replace these thoughts with more helpful and positive ones.

A therapist can help identify the cause of the avoidance and work with the individual to develop healthier coping strategies.

Other treatments, such as mindfulness-based therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), have also been found to be helpful. Finally, medication, relaxation techniques, and self-help techniques can also be useful.

Relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga may help to reduce stress and anxiety.

Medication can be used to treat underlying mental health issues that may be contributing to the avoidance.

Finally, self-help techniques may include learning to identify and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs. It also helps the individual learn how to communicate openly and honestly with others. No matter what the cause may be, it is essential to seek help.

Couples Counseling

Couples counseling for an Intimacy Avoidant Marriage often starts with the recognition and handling of concurrent mental health issues. These include depression, substance abuse, anxiety, personality disorders, or challenges in expressing emotions.

Couples Therapy can also help people learn how to open up to others, be more trusting, and develop healthier relationships. It can help each partner become more aware of their own and each other's needs.

These therapies focus on helping individuals increase their acceptance of their own feelings and thoughts, as well as their partner's. This can lead to improved communication and understanding between partners. This can lead to increased understanding and intimacy.

With the right kind of help, it is possible to identify problems and move towards healthier, more fulfilling relationships.

By learning to understand better and accept themselves and their partner, people can start to move away from destructive avoidance patterns. In addition, they are moving toward building deeper, more meaningful connections.

With guidance and support, individuals can learn to identify and challenge unhelpful thought patterns. Our thoughts contribute to avoidance and replace them with more helpful, positive ones. With the right help, it is possible to overcome intimacy avoidance and build healthier, more fulfilling relationships.

Help for Intimacy Avoidance

The connections and insecurities formed in childhood do not have to be permanent. Through therapeutic practices and conscious efforts to have healthy relationships, people can change. Those with attachment issues can acquire the feeling of "earned security," as identified by Robert Weiss.

Therapy can assist Intimacy Avoidants in breaking past their early upbringing. They also learn the aptitudes necessary for true closeness and durable emotional connections.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with intimacy avoidance, contact a mental health counselor or couples therapist. With the right kind of help, it is possible to manage this style and develop healthier relationships with others.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. Kathy McMahon

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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  1. Now what? My wife and I have gone through some real discoveries about ourselves after experiencing mulitple major lifes milestones simultaneously, with the loss of parents and total isolation from the world during lockdown. Which began our introspective journey to why we are who we are, and what we need to do to help ourselves as individuals and what we can do for eachothers recognitions, while maintaining a child with a mild developmental delay diagnosis for now.

    My wife grew up in a houshold with two emotionally detached parents, who were both abusive, controlling, manipulative, and extream legal substance abusers, with 40+ years of legal prescriptions of Opiods, muscle relaxers, and sleeping pills, along with 2-6 alcoholic beverages per day. Her father died last year and her mother had a mental eppisode and gave $500,000 of her and her husbands retirement savings and sold her car to give it all to one total stranger she met on the internet. My wife was questioned by her mother and fathe once for eating bread off a restaurant table because they charged her parents for the bread. Her father told her she ruined the bill because she ate the bread. This was the level of value they placed on her.monitary needs. My wife also developed an eating disorder while living with her parents. So my wife realizimg just how toxic her parent were and are no longer speaks with her mother due to discovering she has been lying to us for 12 years and never told her daughter the truth. My wifes mother and father both had serios attachment issues with all their relationships and had ZERO close freinds. My wife is now distant, independant, extreamly motivated by work, and finds faults in me that are not grounded in reality. Like telling me I have a budget problem, when I have not bought shoes or clothing in 5 years, spend my money on fixing up really broken things around the house mostly for others, and do so not by buying the most expensive fix but the absolute cheapest even inventive fixes. My wife has never been in therapy, her ENTIRE family believes therapist are all quacks, and share this line when ever therapy is discussed: "why don't you visit a therapist, tell him all about my problems, and then tell what I should do."

    While I grew up in a hosehold of a deceased alcoholic father (7yrs old), divorced when I was three. An adopted brother 5 years older who physically and mentally tortured me daily, NOT Brotherly love, as explaind away by my entire family whenever I told them. My brother kicked me in the back so hard and for so long I eas bed ridden for 3 days when I was 12, and my back went out on ots own without physical trauma when I was 14 leaving me on the floor incapable of getting up. I am now overly attached to my relationships learning and struggeling with how to say no, and set healthy boundries. I've been to therapy before 4 times but only found it helpful with one of my therapists.

    We both recognize all this has left us trying to pick up the pieces, while building our marriage. With the vast number of frauds out there, what do we look for when trying to find a decent couples therapist who will not just assign basic explinations, while not using the precise tools (exercises) necessary to help us recognize and adapt to our childhood traumas'; bassically making things worse for us rather than better???

    Are there credentials and certain personality traits we need to look for in a therapist which will help us help ourselves with these complexities? Or are we doomed trying to navigate through a vast feild of people until we find the right fit for us as individuals AND as a couple?

  2. My Avoidant Attachment Disorder manifests itself as intimacy anxiety which is turn causes me to suffer from severe sexual dysfunctions whenever a relationship starts getting serious. The first few sexual encounters with any given woman are usually fine performance-wise. However at some point within a few weeks of a relationship I suddenly lose all desire shutting down my ability to either ejaculate with a partner or to get and hold an erection.

    For decades I thought I was simply easily bored sexually so when the dysfunctions would start I would break off the relationship and move on to another and the whole situation would repeat itself. It wasn’t until after putting off marriage until I was in my 40’s I finally wed and the sexual dysfunctions started on the wedding night and never improved making the marriage both unconsummated. My wife and I spent a few years going from Therapist to Therapist but they all insisted on treating the symptoms (The inhibited ejaculation and E.D.) putting us both through a tortuous and unpleasant series of “Homework Exercises” including Sensate Focus which was the final straw for my wife who blamed herself for my total inability to perform sexually.

    In my 50’s I finally went to a Psychiatrist who suggested family trauma as a child of alcoholics was causing these anxiety related sexual problems but he was unable to take it farther than that and my marriage is still sexless 20 years later. He also mentioned I was suffering from a “Dismissive Avoidant Attachment Disorder” but at the time I had no idea what he was talking about until years later when I came across this article which, unlike anything else I have read about male sexual disorders and DAAD describes me to a “T”

  3. “But eventually, the intimacy avoidant begins to feel alternately trapped, bored, or smothered, and then initiates a pattern of hyper-focusing on their new partner’s shortcomings and begins to systematically disengage emotionally”

    For years I have been trying to find out what causes me to lose desire for a woman after one or two sexual encounters. This quote from you article caught my eye because of the word “boredom” I never felt any anticipatory anxiety or any anxiety before or during sex even when my body would suddenly shut down and I would no longer be able to perform. What I thought it was, and what I told myself it was in the 15 years I dated and after marrying was that I was simply bored sexually very easily. This explanation made perfect sense because that’s exactly how I felt- sexually bored. When this would happen I would break off the relationship and start another just to have it start all over again. But when I started researching the probable being “bored” as a cause of sexual dysfunction, especially at the beginning of a new relationship was never mentioned anywhere. Now I know what it is- some kind of subconscious anxiety that shuts me down sexually. I went to a number of Sex Therapists and anxiety was never even mentioned. Too bad This problem has made my life miserable and caused my 30 year marriage to be sexless.

  4. “But eventually, the intimacy avoidant begins to feel alternately trapped, bored, or smothered, and then initiates a pattern of hyper-focusing on their new partner’s shortcomings and begins to systematically disengage emotionally” Wow in all the years I have been trying to find out why my relationships start out fine but then, after a few sexual encounters I suddenly lose all desire and my ability to function sexually with the women. I married in my late 30’s but dated 15 years before that and although I felt very attracted to the women I dated the relationship would only last a few weeks at most and then I would want out. My marriage has been sexually troubled from the beginning and for decades we have lived as room mates. I never knew it was all caused by anxiety until recently. Thank you for this great article.

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